Despite warnings from Mennonite Central Committee, Low German Mennonites from drought-prone regions of northern Mexico have bought more than 49,000 acres of land in Colombia.
Kennert Giesbrecht, editor of Die Mennonitische Post — a newspaper for Low German Mennonites throughout the Americas — notes the Liviney Colony and another roughly 30,000-acre parcel as two examples of land acquisitions. Another group is considering a 25,000-acre plot. The lands are all in the eastern plains of Colombia, about 125 miles east of Bogotá.
Giesbrecht said houses and a school have been built, farm equipment has been bought, electricity has been brought in, and roughly 20 families have moved to Liviney. The crops have been a success, although significant fertilization was required.
The area “undoubtedly looks like the land of milk and honey,” said Bonnie Klassen, Mennonite Central Committee area director for South America and Mexico. Klassen has lived in Colombia for 20 years and said the area is lush.
The quest for fertile new lands is fundamental to the story of Low German Mennonites. Giesbrecht said that, over the last three decades, roughly 100 new colonies have been established in Latin America. A few years ago, colonies in Mexico and Bolivia even sent representatives to Russia, although nothing came of it.
Now, “Colombia fever,” as Giesbrecht calls it, has Mennonites from Bolivia to Alberta talking.
But Klassen has serious concerns, which Giesbrecht has given considerable play in the Post. Klassen said the vast majority of land in Colombia does not have clear legal title, and even where official documents exist, they may not stand up to legal challenges.
Colombia is emerging from five decades of armed conflict in which an estimated 15 million to 20 million acres of land was taken from its rightful owners, according to government numbers. Klassen said that, in many cases, new owners of this land have received documentation of ownership either by coercing officials or by collaborating with unscrupulous ones. The area where Mennonites are buying was an area of considerable displacement.
The Colombian government is working to bring clarity and fairness to land rights, something that began even before the peace accords of last year. According to the country’s Law of Victims and Land Restitution, passed in 2011, if a landowner is found to have unknowingly obtained land that is rightfully someone else’s, that landowner is given replacement land elsewhere. If someone is found to have knowingly obtained land in an untoward fashion, the land is taken away with no compensation.
If Mennonites are found to have acquired land that changed hands unlawfully at some point, they would be given land elsewhere, but that could be scattered parcels for families instead of a single tract for a colony.
The law also means people who knowingly obtained disputed land have reason to sell before their ownership is called into question. Such sellers would presumably welcome the prospect of unsuspecting foreign buyers.
While Klassen has no knowledge of Low German Mennonites purchasing disputed land, and does not suggest ill intent on their part, she feels the risks are too high.
About a year ago, Klassen met with a group of Low German Mennonites involved in acquiring land in Colombia. They had been given certain documents by their lawyers, but not the certificate that can be obtained at no charge from the government that certifies the land purchased is clear of dispute.
The Mennonite newcomers have also obtained correspondence from the Colombian government that they feel exempts them from military service, although Klassen found the letter obtuse and potentially misleading. Giesbrecht was somewhat surprised these sorts of privileges seem less important to these settlers than they usually are for Low German Mennonites.
As for Colombian Mennonites, who are known in the country for their peace work, Klassen said there is some uneasiness that the purchase of large tracts of potentially disputed land by other Mennonites will send a mixed message about what Mennonites stand for.
Mennonites have a long history of moving to areas and unknowingly stepping into their questionable political and historical dynamics.
Willmar Harder, former head of MCC’s Low German program in Bolivia and now a pastor in Kansas, said Mennonites have often settled areas recently cleared of other inhabitants, and Mennonite settlement has often served the political-economic interests in their new countries. In the 1700s, Catherine the Great invited Mennonites to settle areas of Russia from which the Tatar people had been removed. In Manitoba, the government granted the “East Reserve” and “West Reserve” to Mennonites a few years after a treaty cleared the legal path for settlement.
Harder cited further examples from Kansas and Minnesota, where Mennonites came in following the Indian Wars; the Paraguayan Chaco, where Mennonite settlers helped Paraguay solidify its border with Bolivia; Bolivia, where Mennonites helped settle newly cleared, politically significant lands; and Mexico, where some large landowners, afraid of a changing government, were happy to unload their land holdings.